In a blow to conservatives, the Senate voted Friday to retain a 15-year-old program helping women and minorities win highway construction contracts.

By 58-37, senators rejected an effort led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to eliminate the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program. McConnell had hoped to attach his provision to a massive bill that would set the framework for $173 billion in highway pro-jects over the next six years.Administration officials had threatened that if McConnell had prevailed, President Clinton might veto the entire bill.

"We must stand up for the Constitution," McConnell said. "We must guarantee equal protection of the laws for every citizen of this country, without regard to race and gender."

But supporters of the program said it was still necessary.

"We all wish we lived in a world that was free from discrimination based on gender or race," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. "But we don't."

McConnell's amendment would have ended a program signed into law by President Reagan in 1983. It sets a goal of awarding 10 percent of federal construction contracts to traditionally disadvantaged groups such as women and minorities.

McConnell wanted to replace it with an outreach program to help emerging small businesses.